Dean O'Brien's Blog

Sloviansk – Part 3: До свидания!

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As I prepare to head off from Sloviansk, I’m sorry to be leaving.  That might seem strange to some, but I’ve learnt a lot here and made some good friends.  Polina, her mother and father took the time to discuss the current situation here and what life is like for them on a daily basis.  These are the people we don’t hear about on the news.  Those trying to live in, or around a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.   IMG_0915 copy

Although Sloviansk has many destroyed buildings, it’s parks and monuments still remain, and like many in Ukraine, are a gathering point for people in the evenings and weekends.

Whilst wandering around a park in the city, I spoke to Polina about which language she prefers to use, Russian or Ukrainian.  Like many people here, she can speak both, but prefers to speak Russian.  She also stressed how the most important thing for her is that she wants peace in her city.

Next stop: Kramatorsk..

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Written by Dean O'Brien

November 23, 2017 at 7:44 pm

Posted in Ukraine

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Sloviansk – Part 2: Welcome..

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I knew within this city there were people who would want to tell me what life was like here.  Innocent people caught up in a conflict they never wanted.   On my first day I met 18 year old Polina who offered to show me around.  She speaks great English (much better than my Russian at least) and although she studies at university in Kharkiv, fortunately for me she was back home in Sloviansk for a few days.

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As we wander the streets, I’m shown the sights and we visit what remains of the Koliba Restaurant destroyed in 2014 by heavy shelling.  Building after building line the roads marking a trail of devastation throughout the city.  It’s kind of hard to imagine what all this must have been like on the days when all this shelling actually took place.

Later, we head towards more residential, built-up areas and Polina invites me back to the apartment for tea that she shares with her mother.  It was here that I was shown damage caused by shells landing nearby to her apartment block back in 2014.

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One window remains broken, caused by shrapnel.  The cost is too much to repair, not to mention the fact that the war is still close by so there’s little point in starting to repair things just yet.  With winter just around the corner, it’s the last thing this family need.  The remaining windows now have tape placed across them, in the hope that this will stop them shattering and blowing shards of glass inwards, should another shell land within close proximity to their building.

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Living with the ‘not-knowing’ is the issue here.  Sloviansk is located just outside the ATO zone so although quiet, it is still considered a hot spot.

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These green gates, riddled with shrapnel from a rocket which landed nearby in 2014, mark the entrance to a local residents home.  I suppose they offer a short glimpse into what people here have to live with.  It doesn’t stop people going about their daily business though.  Buses run and kids go to school, but the huge military presence here is impossible to ignore.

 

 

 

 

Written by Dean O'Brien

November 6, 2017 at 7:47 pm

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Sloviansk – Part 1: ‘Welcome To Hell’

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After flying into Kiev it wasn’t long before I caught my train and headed east to the city of Sloviansk.  This was the first city to come under control of non-government (pro-Russian) forces in April 2014.  It was also the city where the first proper battle took place between government and non-government forces.

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Although only held for a short period of time, Sloviansk suffered tremendously from shell damage.  It’s residents now have to live with the after affects of this.  Damaged roads and the shelled remains of buildings pave the way into the city.

We don’t hear about these places on the news do we?  A combination of broken buildings and ruined lives.  Not important enough for Western media to report on.  To them, all the important action happened 3 years ago.  It seems that what remains, isn’t classed as newsworthy’ anymore.  The people here are aware of this, and this kind of ignorance has given them huge doubts about journalists and media outlets who come here, and their intentions.

Its not all doom and gloom though.  I feel safe enough walking around the city on my own and people are approachable, if a little wary.   The aren’t many foreigners here and those that are here mostly work for NGO’s.  I refrain from carrying an ‘attention grabbing’ SLR and rely on a smartphone, which captures acceptable images.

Many NGO’s are located here including some which cross into the non-goverment (pro-Russian) controlled areas.  They help with sanitation, clothing, food, water and even give financial aid.  Some NGO’s are better than others though, but any help is better than no help at all.

I continue to wander around the city, and as I crouch down to take an image, one passer by shouts out ‘Welcome to hell’.

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Written by Dean O'Brien

November 4, 2017 at 11:24 am

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Always Be Prepared..

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I wasn’t prepared for this trip.  The seasons here change like the flick of a switch.  Spring is spring, summer is summer, autumn is autumn and winter….well it’s cold.  When I first arrived in Kiev I manage to grab the last few days of the autumn sunshine and eventually, when it was time to leave Ukraine, I witnessed the first snowflakes of the year.

I had a rough idea of what I wanted to document here, but nothing could prepare me for what I witnessed.  People living in shell damaged apartments trying to live as normal a life as possible.  Many on the street having to sell personal possessions just to buy food and pay utilities.  Various NGO’s operate in the area but it’s simply not enough.

I managed to speak to people from Luhansk and Donetsk who regularly cross ‘from one side to the other’.  They told me how life is there, and more importantly, their hopes for the future.  Throughout my journey I met some amazing people and over the next few weeks I’ll write more blog posts about my experiences there.

I had to be fairly honest with people when they asked me ‘What do people say in your country about the war?’  I told them  ‘They thinks it’s over, as it’s never really mentioned on the news anymore, so that’s why I’m here’.  

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Written by Dean O'Brien

November 2, 2017 at 10:39 am

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Mariupol – My Work Continues

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Mariupol was worth the trip.  Worth the 18 hour train ride.  Worth the trolling many of my blog posts and tweets received.  It made me realise that many can’t handle the truth about the war and what is actually happening in the east of Ukraine.

I left it a little too late to apply for official accreditation to gain access to the ATO zone, although not having this brought it’s own rewards.  It steered me towards other individuals and organisations that I otherwise never would have met. And like the old saying goes ‘Sometimes even the wrong train takes you to the right station’.

It was an incredible experience meeting those on the edge of the conflict.  To talk about how it’s affecting them.  And best of all, being able to document this without any constraints.  The stories of families spilt between the government and non-government held territories were plenty and this is something I’d like to explore further.  That was a huge reason for me coming here.  I simply didn’t know what to believe and only by travelling here could I see for myself and document what life’s like here.

I used to think that to work in areas such this you’d be better working for a large media company or newspaper as I presumed they would carry some weight, open some doors, but I’ve soon come to realise that in places such as this it has the opposite affect.  Nobody here wants to talk to ‘official’ journalists or photographers.  They simply don’t trust them.  The idea that you work for any form of paymaster is a no-go.

There’s no doubt that being freelance gives you true freedom.  Nobody to control where you go, who you speak to, what questions you ask and what you post.  I’ll be back in the east of Ukraine shortly where my work will continue.

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Written by Dean O'Brien

October 3, 2017 at 12:18 pm

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Mariupol – Final Meeting With Former UA Soldier (Part 3)

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Life here is a struggle for many, and for Sergei it’s no exception.  Since leaving the Ukrainian Army he’s worked at the local metal plant Metinvest. It’s hard work and long hours for very little pay.  Long term, he’s hoping to get a job on a merchant ship which will mean better money, but the downside is that it’ll mean being away from home for up to 6 months at time.

Strolling the streets we discuss the current political climate, Decommunisation, the conflict and everything in-between.  There’s nothing better than being on the ground and speaking to real people who live and breathe these issues.  That was the whole point of me travelling here.

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Sergei’s not anti-Ukrainian but does see his loyalties more with Russia.  Being so close to Russia geographically this comes as no surprise.

I ask about his time in the Ukrainian army and he gladly shares with me a small number of images from his collection and a few stories.

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He looks back fondly at his time in the army but he’s quick to mention that he’s glad that he’s not in there now.  ‘Lots of people lost respect for the government and army when they came here straight from Kiev. Look what happened on May 9th.  We all lived together in peace until they came. They started all this.  Now look’.  Like many, he still has genuine fears about being drafted back into the armed forces.

The battle on May 9th 2014 (Victory Day) left a number of fatalities and casualties.  This date on the calendar will always remain a tricky one for people in Mariupol breeding mixed emotions.  On one hand they’ll be celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany and on the other, they’ll be remembering those who died in 2014 at the hands of Ukrainian government forces.

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Wandering the streets around the centre we grab a marshrutka to head to the outskirts of town.  We visit more Soviet monuments and accidentally come across what appears to be a Soviet museum.  It’s closed unfortunately but it gives me the opportunity to discuss the future of such places with Sergei.  Do they have a place in modern Ukraine or with the decommunisation rules in place, are they going to disappear in an attempt to re-write history?  Sergei said ‘I have a bad feeling about these new rules. The government I think will try to make it look like these things never happened.  But how can they do this?  My Grandfather died fighting in this war so it is only right that we know about this right?’     

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As it’s my last evening in Mariupol Sergei invites me back to his apartment where his wife Yulia is cooking traditional food for us all.  We travel the remainder of the way on foot and en route to the apartment he tells me ‘Everyone who lives on this estate works at the metal plant.  They finish work, then come home and drink.  They they get up and go back to work again.  Then come home and drink again.  It’s a very bad way to live’.  ‘The cheapest things to buy here are alcohol and cigarettes.  What chance have people got?’

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He’s got a point.  Things were tough in Ukraine before the conflict and long before the days of Big Vik.  The new government hasn’t brought about much of a change in my eyes.  It’s similar goods just packaged differently.  Ask anyone on the streets and they tell you the same thing.

As the evening draws to a close, Sergei calls me a taxi and I head back to my hotel.  People advised me not to go to Mariupol but it’s been an eye opening experience.  Great people living in hard times.  I didn’t know who I was going to meet or what I was going to find when I got there.  I just knew that I’d meet somebody.

 

Written by Dean O'Brien

August 8, 2017 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine

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Mariupol – Meeting With Former UA Soldier (Part 2)

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After my first meeting with Sergei, the following day we agreed to meet again.  And again I sank another few pints whilst I waited, as this was now becoming a regular routine.

We walk around Mariupol and discuss the current situation here.  There’s a lot of paranoia here and that’s probably the reason I took most of shots here with an iPhone.  A large camera draws lots of un-wanted attention from passing Police cars and anyone in uniform.  It also gives them an excuse to stop, question you and demand a bribe which seems to be de rigueur in former Soviet countries.  Old habits die hard.

Walking the streets, I never ask people now if I can take their picture anymore as you’ll only ever get one of two answers.  ‘Nyet’ or ‘Give me money’.  Things seem extra tense here though and even taking pictures with your phone causes people to slow down and watch what you’re doing.  We keep walking.

An abandoned building stands back from the main road displaying a huge banner ‘Mariupol is Ukraine’.  It seems a little overkill.  Sergei explained that since the referendum held here in May 2014 a huge emphasis has been placed on stressing to people that ‘Mariupol is Ukraine!’, although he adds ‘not everyone here agrees to this’.

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The image below shows how a kiosk has covered up the Russian word ‘пресса’ and replaced it with the Ukrainian word ‘преса’.  This doesn’t please everybody, but it is becoming more common in Ukraine now and shows that there are deliberate attempts to start phasing out use of the Russian language.

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As for the people here in Mariupol, I noticed that although many appear to be patriotic on the outside, they aren’t actually prepared to take up arms to participate and fight with the UA forces. You can only draw your own conclusions from that.

 

 

Written by Dean O'Brien

August 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine, Uncategorized

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